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Charged Up Trains

April 27, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Electrical power lines stretched along train tracks are a familiar sight in Minnesota. Now BNSF Railway, the state's dominant railroad, is exploring ways to update that iconic image for the 21st century.  

In the process, it could address three of Minnesota's prime public policy challenges:

  • Building an energy-sustainable intercity passenger and freight transportation system.
  • Delivering carbon-free energy from wind, hydroelectric, biomass and nuclear generators to urban customers.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.
This impressive three-fer flows from Texas-based BNSF's embryonic initiative to lease its right-of-way for new overhead or underground transmission lines that could also power a new generation of electric locomotives. BNSF Chairman Matthew Rose told the Journal of Commerce that the railroad has discussed the idea with several power line firms and looked into beginning conversion of its fleet of 6,700 diesel-engine train-pullers to dual diesel-electric motive power - a kind of Prius on rails.

At the same time, a new study has found significant national economic benefits from an aggressive conversion from today's oil-based transportation system to electrified railroads and urban transit, coupled with a long-range ramp-up of renewable energy.

According to a draft of the study, anchored by researchers at the Virginia-based Millennium Institute, this dual effort would boost U.S. gross domestic product by 13 percent while cutting greenhouse gas emissions 38 percent and oil consumption 22 percent, each compared with continuing business as usual.

These boons wouldn't come cheaply: The study assumes national investment of up to $1.7 trillion over two decades ($85 billion annually) on electrified rail, not counting the costs of bringing alternative energy on line. By comparison, the 2009 federal recovery act provides the nation's biggest commitment yet to electrified fast passenger rail - just $8 billion over two years.

BNSF's Rose said the cost of electrifying its entire 26,000 miles of U.S. track for both freight and passenger service could reach $10 billion. That's too much for the nation's No. 2 railroad to bite off right now without government help, he added, but it could become feasible if carbon emissions are capped.

"I think we're going to start pricing carbon out at some point in time in the future," Rose told the Journal of Commerce. "There's lots of good news, and lots of not so good news, in that for railroads."

Relatively cheap diesel fuel has limited electrified rail in the United States to urban transit and a few intercity passenger lines in the Northeast. It would take advances in technology to produce electric locomotives capable of pulling U.S. freight trains, which are the heaviest in the world. But manufacturers say it could be accomplished in several years - perhaps at double the $2.5 million price of a comparable diesel unit.

Gilbert Carmichael, who was federal railroad administrator under former President George H.W. Bush, calls the prospect of an electrified U.S. rail system "Interstate II." He told the Journal of Commerce: "If we do it right, then we're building something dramatically superior to the interstate highway system." Benefits would include not only greatly reduced diesel use, but also improved rail safety and increased speed for both freight and passengers, he added.

Minnesota officials field a constant stream of permit applications for new electrical transmission capacity, sometimes along railroads and highways, sometimes not. Such existing corridors provide "definitely a degree of compatibility" for power lines, said Bill Storm, state planning director for energy security at the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

But rail corridors alone aren't always 150 feet wide, which is required for major transmission lines such as the proposed 345-KV CAPX2020 project that would carry wind power from the Buffalo Ridge in western Minnesota, Storm said.

Still, as Minnesota and the nation update both the electrical power grid and the rail system, it makes sense to leverage all the synergies between these two vital infrastructure webs.

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